Should a Northern Virginia youth detention center stay open? Public weighs in

Should a youth detention center in Northern Virginia stay open?

That question spurred passionate debate at a series of public meetings this month, as the operators of the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center make decisions about the future of the facility as Northern Virginia juvenile crime declines and as alternatives to detention are used.

“I would like to see the facility stay open because it helps youth,” said Bill Cleveland, former vice mayor of Alexandria.

“It would be a tragedy to close down this facility,” Cleveland said. “It is working well.”

Cleveland attended a public meeting Wednesday night in Alexandria, one of three such meetings being held this month as D.C.-based independent criminal justice contractor, The Moss Group, carries out a $299,372 study of the area’s juvenile justice needs.The study will help determine whether the center at 200 South Whiting St. in Alexandria should be restructured, closed or left as is. A final report is expected in January.

The center, which is regulated by the Virginia Department of Juvenile Services, serves Alexandria, Arlington County and Falls Church and is operated by the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Commission, which the three fund. Five members sit on the commission, including two from Alexandria, two from Arlington and one from Falls Church.

The center has room for 70 people but the population is usually fewer than 30. According to a fact sheet provided at an Alexandria public meeting, the use of the detention center has reduced by more than 70% between 2006 and 2019.

The trend follows a national trend where juvenile incarceration rates have been declined during the past decade.

The number of beds juveniles from Alexandria, Arlington County and Falls Church used in fiscal year 2019 was 5,574, compared with 20,092 in fiscal year 2006.

“The numbers of kids who need to be detained have been going down,” said Arlington resident Liz Ryan at Wednesday’s meeting.

Ryan said she wants the facility to be shuttered.

“We’ve been spending a lot money. We should use this opportunity to invest in best practices and to invest in young people in the community,” Ryan said.

But Zach McBride, a physical education teacher who works with kids at the detention center, offers another perspective, that is not based on money.

“I would like it to stay open because there are always certain kids that need that help,” McBride said at Wednesday’s meeting. “I truly enjoy working with the kids that we have there and helping them to redeem themselves.”

A final public hearing will be held from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Central Library Auditorium at 1015 N. Quincy St. in Arlington. The first meeting was held Nov. 14 in Falls Church.

Anyone who is not able to attend the final public hearing may provide anonymous feedback through a short online survey. The survey will be open until Dec. 6.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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